Anywhere But Here: Where Did the Pandemic Start?

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Jon Cohen in Science: When Alice Hughes downloaded a preprint from the server Research Square in September 2021, she could hardly believe her eyes. The study described a massive effort to survey bat viruses in China, in search of clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of 21 researchers from the country’s leading academic institutions had trapped more than 17,000 bats, from the subtropical south to the frigid northeast, and tested them for relatives of SARS-CoV-2.

The number they found: zero.

The authors acknowledged this was a surprising result. But they concluded relatives of SARS-CoV-2 are “extremely rare” in China and suggested that to pinpoint the pandemic’s roots, “extensive” bat surveys should take place abroad, in the Indochina Peninsula.

“I don’t believe it for a second,” says Hughes, a conservation biologist who’s now at Hong Kong University. Between May 2019 and November 2020, she had done her own survey of 342 bats in the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan province where she worked at the time. As her team reported in Cell in June 2021, it found four viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 in the garden, which is about three times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

The new study had sampled bats near that same location, at an abandoned mine that had yielded another close SARS-CoV-2 relative in 2013, and at other sites in nearly half of China’s 31 provinces. And yet the only thing researchers found were viruses close to SARS-CoV-1, which caused the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 decades ago.

Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney who coauthored the Cell paper with Hughes, dismisses the preprint with a single word: “Bullshit.” Although Holmes has no evidence the team behind the study did anything underhanded, “There is a big contradiction between this study and others that needs to be explained,” he says.

But the paper meshed with a growing political reality in China. From the start of the pandemic, the Chinese government—like many foreign researchers—has vigorously rejected the idea that SARS-CoV-2 somehow originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and escaped. But over the past 2 years, it has also started to push back against what many regard as the only plausible alternative scenario: The pandemic started in China with a virus that naturally jumped from bats to an “intermediate” species and then to humans—most likely at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

Beijing was open to the idea at first. But today it points to myriad ways SARS-CoV-2 could have arrived in Wuhan from abroad, borne by contaminated frozen food or infected foreigners—perhaps at the Military World Games in Wuhan, in October 2019—or released accidentally by a U.S. military lab located more than 12,000 kilometers from Wuhan. Its goal is to avoid being blamed for the pandemic in any way, Filippa Lentzos, a sociologist at King’s College London who studies biological threats and health security. “China just doesn’t want to look bad,” she says. “They need to maintain an image of control and competence. And that is what goes through everything they do.” More here.

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Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Ajaz Ahmed, Ammar Jafri, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, G. R. Baloch, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Nayeem, Syed Hamza Gilani